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Establish a Workplace Culture That is Comfortable with Addressing Conflict

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Conflict is an everyday occurrence in most organizations. And guess what? It usually gets passed to Human Resources to “handle the problem and fix it.”

Most strategies are the quick fix, not the long-term change to really understand how to work through conflict and get to innovation. To reduce conflict and increase competitiveness, companies need to understand systems thinking and truly get at the source of the conflict, not just an isolated part of the whole.

When conflict erupts at the office, managers often run through a predictable series of steps.

  • The situation is researched to determine who is causing all the trouble.
  • The person is given information and put on a performance improvement plan.
  • There is a small amount of coaching and enrollment in a communications or anger management course.

If the plan fails to bring about improvement of the offensive behavior there is a series of predictable reactions.

  • The whole incident is pushed under the rug and the employee remains in their job.
  • The employee is transferred to another department.
  • The employee is fired. Despite the billions of dollars spent each year on conflict resolution, on remedial programs, on worker time spent in these programs, on moving or replacing “problem” workers – interpersonal conflict remains a fact of life in offices everywhere. And, with the economy causing excessive stress, conflict is at an all-time high.

The 3 key reasons H.R. interventions fail are due to lack of thinking through the core systems issues.

  • Standard intervention processes stay on a superficial, symptomatic level; they don’t even begin to touch on the systemic patterns that are the actual causes of workplace conflict.
  • The tendency is to single out the “problem person” and target interventions only at that person.
  • There is a collective agreement to look the other way and not really tackle the interactive relational reasons for the upsets.

It is deceptively easy and reassuring to think that we can get a definitive handle on bad workplace interactions by attaching them to a single, recognizable face. Yet, it doesn’t work. When one or two “bad apples” are taken out of the workplace system, the problem is not solved. Sure, everything seems to return to normal for a time; that is, until the next annoying person shows up. Then the same old process starts all over again wasting time and resources.

To reduce conflict and increase competitiveness, companies need to become SYSTEMS PREPARED! That means taking a long hard look at the culture and structure. It means looking at how hurtful, seemingly innocent zingers and put-downs can be when they are permitted. It means asking questions that lead to accountability rather than finger pointing. It means correcting the gossip and secrets that breed conflict. It means stopping the tendency to leap-frog so that employees can jump over their bosses to complain and not have to face the source of their discomfort.
Leaders in an organization need to approach conflict solving with awareness that everything is connected and that everyone plays a part in the discomfort, even those that tend to be quiet and look the other way. (As we teach, “He or she who remains silent is guilty too.”)

One CEO I worked with said it best, “Telling the truth isn’t easy and for that matter, neither is running a business. Yet, we really need employees who have learned the skills to handle conflict, not just run from it. Interpersonal problems rarely improve with time alone. As the leader, I am the role model for beginning the dialogue to problem solve and not let things fester. I wish there was an easier way and yet I know that facing the tough stuff trumps running from it every single time.”

Have you found a way to establish a workplace culture of addressing conflict within your organization? I am here to help!

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